Why don’t corporate PRs connect online?

For  the web is about connections, whether that relates to technology or what people do with it.  Traditional public relations skills are similarly about putting together ideas (stories/narrative) and people (journalists, publics and organisations). 

So why is there so much criticism – such as Gapingvoid who believes: public relations is “getting social media all wrong”?  The point seems to be largely that PR is focusing on “pushing” corporate messages rather than understanding online is an environment for many-to-many dialogue, and testing ideas.

agrees that in the UK, big business is lagging behind in social media – with few examples of interesting practice, compared to politicians, governments, NGOs, charities and the public sector.  The topic of the highly influential World Economic Forum in Davros for 2007 is “The Shifting Power Equation” – and the five-day meeting will be covered online by those whose posts, such as Richard Sambrook, I look forward to following.

Of the 2,400 participants from 90 countries – around 50% are business leaders representing 1,000 “of the foremost companies” – do they recognise that power is shifting away from their control?  Will they be blogging live from Davros?

Chris Anderson is in Cannes for the MIDEM European music conference where he asks “why do smart companies do stupid things?” despite the massive move to people power and connections in the music industry, he believes it continues to treat “consumers not just like criminals but also idiots”.

A further example of companies not getting the power shift relates to Endemol and  Channel 4 – although Jade Goody herself is confronting the consequences of doing stupid things this week, the makers and broadcasters of Big Brother are not.  The Guardian reports how bosses of both concerns have clearly not connected with the issue and the views of their key stakeholders – the public, politicians, sponsors…

Making such a connection – especially when things have gone wrong – is welcomed.   feels the move by CEO Jonathan Schwartz of Fortune 500 company (Sun) to publicly apologize to the blogosphere without being asked is revolutionary.  Mayers believes “people (and PR professionals) are going to start realizing how much customer good will is brought by responding publicly and pro-actively admitting mistakes. So what if it brings more attention to the issue? Maybe the goal SHOULD be to bring more attention to customer complaints so as to improve the way a company operates. In my opinion, more and more companies are going to start taking this approach of building trust with their customers. And more and more CEO’s will be the ones doing it.”  He cites a comment on Schwartz’s post that “A CEO who blogs is rare. A CEO who publicly admits a mistake is priceless.”

I think there could be a number of reasons why big business and their PR advisors aren’t connecting with the online revolution:

  • the dominance of marketing over PR – in power and budget terms, marketing functions are more influential in big businesses.  Marketing is not traditionally about making two-way connections, rather it sees “audiences” as in need of persuasion to do what the organisation wants, which is primarily to buy more and more.
  • big business is risk averse – with a focus on health & safety and other legal requirements, the online world appears full of dangers to those who are nervous of its perceived chaos and loss of control.  PRs have become used to having all statements checked and signed off, reducing spontaneity and the ability to have a robust discussion. 
  • business leaders (and many practitioners) rarely understand the potential of public relations beyond publicity and media relations.  Many PRs in turn operate at a technician rather than an management level in organisations, so may not be able to effect change.
  • UK businesses have few “personality” leaders who are comfortable expressing their personal opinions through public channels, having their viewpoint challenged in debate and spending time in the public arena.  Those with the ego probably find the rough and tumble and equality of voices online outside their comfort zone.
  • PR in business isn’t championing the online world – there is interest, but a fear of being able to persuade corporates of the benefits of online.  The recent focus in PR on evaluation, means practitioners may be concerned about not being able to prove the value of blogs, etc.
  • lack of experience – in business, technology is the domain of the IT department (and beancounters), making it hard for in-house PR practitioners to experience the online world for themselves.  They aren’t allowed to just set up blogs or making comments – they may be monitoring, but unsure how to respond to the free-flowing, daunting speed of online conversations.
  • brand regulations – in many big businesses, the way in which the brand is represented is heavily controlled – and so designers or “brand police” may have the responsibility and power of the online world.  The old days of corporates giving permissions for links or use of logos doesn’t apply in Web 2.0.
  • time constraints – when you’re busy doing the “day job”, it is hard to devote the resource to adding in a new discipline, especially when there isn’t a culture to support such innovation.
  • budget concerns – although anyone can engage in social media without considerable cost, corporates don’t do free.  They are used to high production values for adverts (and expected to reflect a brand quality) so the world of YouTube seems scruffy and cheap.  But producing flashy multi-media materials isn’t respected online so big business has experienced some bloody noses.
  • word of mouth – the currency of online communications has been captured by marketing agencies talking about “buzz” or “viral” initiatives or direct mail specialists who can offer matrices for evaluating clicks per pound or similar “measures” that impress management. 
  • where’s the money? For many PR consultancies, they can’t readily see the revenue stream online.  Which feeds back into many of the above points.
  • lack of successful examples – for every Thresher’s voucher that caught the public imagination, there are the Walmart, Microsoft and other negative examples of where bloggers have slaughtered brands online. 
    I believe online is the natural home for public relations.  We are used to discussion and confronting negative viewpoints through our experience with journalists, activist groups, etc.  We are able to respond quickly and flexibility from crisis and issues management perspectives.  We are a people business, skilled in group dynamics, connections and interpersonal relationship building.  We understand the value of reputation and how this depends on the perspectives of others rather than on simply what we wish to portray.  We understand information – how it flows, the power of word of mouth conversations, the use of narrative to improve recollection.   We work creatively with much lower budgets than marketing’s big spend.  We have experience in not being able to directly control or measure the outcome of our actions – something business is having to recognise as the power of networks, communications and public opinion is moving to the masses. 
    Can public relations practitioners in big business, especially in the UK, draw on these strengths and overcome the barriers I’ve identified?

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

5 thoughts on “Why don’t corporate PRs connect online?”

  1. In terms of online evaluation for PR’s to show ROI, the use of simple free tools such as Google analyitics that illustrate clearly who is looking at your key messages (availble by the IP of each visitor), how long they spent and also, if they blog, what they thought of it. Already online arms of traditional media have comments enabled on articles that allow discussion of issues.

    An interesting idea around that of brand regulations is the way in which some Tech companies such as Apple and Microsoft, have fans that copy their brand regulations, purely by strength of impression. Look at say thinksecret.com and it’s similarity with apple.com. If your brand regulations are so distinctive (and easy to copy) your fans and best customers will imitate them. True not everyone has the money to spend on such design but even a little goes a long way.

  2. Dan – thanks. One of the advantages of online is definitely that technology can support tracking of the metrics you mention which is very helpful. There are also good behavioural outcomes that can be monitored – such as online petitions, “pass on” vouchers, and as you indicate, how a story develops online (and offline).

    I think your point on brand fans is excellent – smart companies can benefit enormously from the power of advocates, where as dumb ones go totally protectionist and lose out from this imitation. Of course, brands need to avoid being ripped off, but if you have an excellent reputation, then having an easily identifiable look that carries with it all the positive connections and associations of the original brand is a great asset.

  3. “A CEO who publicly admits a mistake is priceless”

    A CEO who publicly admits a mistake will be sued.

    Or his company will.

    “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” (Henry VI, Part 2).

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